2015 Virtual Edition: Miriam Shakow

Postscript to The Peril and Promise of Noodles and Beer: Condemnation of Patronage and Hybrid Political Frameworks in ‘Post-Neoliberal’ Cochabamba, Bolivia

Since the publication of “The Peril and Promise of Noodles and Beer” in 2011, the political dynamic within the municipality of Sacaba has changed significantly: a mayor has finished his 5-year term and been re-elected. Whereas between 1996 and 2009, the Sacaba Municipal Councilmembers routinely impeached mayors before completing their terms, Humberto Sánchez, a former mid-level rural official, finished his 2010-2005 term and was then re-elected this year. He was touted as “the most voted” mayor in Bolivia this year, having been elected with the highest percentage of eligible voters going to the polls of Bolivia’s large cities. According to several Sacabans active in local politics speaking to me by phone this month, the problems of peguismo and clientelismo—the seeking and granting of patronage gifts and favors—which most Sacabans had long complained bedeviled Sacaba politics and fueled the perpetual turnover among municipal political elected officials and their functionaries, had declined dramatically.

Don Armando, a successful Sacaba-area owner of an industrial chicken farm who hailed from the rural community of Choro, argued that clientelism “no longer exists. We are calm and satisfied [tranquilos] in Bolivia.” This was an astounding statement in light of the near-universal dissatisfaction and frustration with municipal government and politics I had heard from Sacabans between 1995 and 2009. Don Armando told me that since 2010, “Sacaba has progressed a lot… there is progress, there is advancement.” The era in which political factions squabbled over limited public-sector municipal jobs and development funding, paving over the door to City Hall with adobe bricks or blocking the highway, was over, he said.


Rural county government building and health clinic on inauguration day. Image by the author.

In addition to measuring progress by the absence of political leadership turnover or tumultuous protest, Don Armando also measured progress by obras: the construction of public infrastructure. The current Mayor had built a new market building for agricultural products, a swimming pool complex in a rural community, and a new City Hall building that was almost finished. In Don Armando’s hometown of Choro, the Sacaba municipal government had finished construction of the new high school and was building another school building. A new, municipally funded hospital was soon to replace Choro’s aging and tiny health clinic.


Don Armando’s analysis of the root cause of these changes differed from that of some with whom I spoke in Sacaba. Don Armando argued that patronage-seeking and giving had evaporated, because public funds were no longer as scarce as they had been before the election of president Evo Morales. Evo’s creation of additional taxes on foreign natural gas companies’ profits in Bolivia, the “nationalization” of natural gas, a significant portion of which was funneled to municipalities for infrastructure, health, and education, had meant that municipal governments and their local political rivals no longer had to struggle over limited pots of cash: there was plenty to go around.

There is money, there is a lot of money in Bolivia; things are improving all over [the country].

As a result of these increased funds, there were paved roads, and schools in the countryside—long grossly underfunded—were now the equal of schools in the city. Don Armando had long been frustrated by the political dominance in municipal politics and government of Sacaba’s provincial elite families. This transformation was visible both within and outside of Sacaba municipality. Don Armando also attributed this increase in “progress” to the rise of new national labor protections and public housing policies that mandated more paid holidays for all workers and an employer’s tax to fund new homes for poor people. His third causal explanation for the decline of patronage was moral: the adult literacy program begun by President Evo Morales had given Bolivians more integrity. “People have become more cultured… this made them open their eyes,” to the dangers of patronage, he argued. Finally, Don Armando implied that the particular qualities of mayor Humberto Sánchez—his abiding commitment to Sacaba’s equality between residents of rural and urban counties and his personal integrity—had cemented the beneficial changes in municipal politics away from peguismo and clientelismo.


Roadside sign touting infrastructure project by Evo. Image by the author.

Another Sacaba resident, a doctor named Doña Leonora, agreed with Don Armando that dramatic changes had occurred in Sacaba over the past five years and that destructive patronage had declined. The proof for her, as for Don Armando, was that the cyclical impeachments of mayors had ended and that obras had mushroomed. Doña Leonora emphasized some different causes of this change, however. She attributed the decline of destructive patronage to particular changes in the new Bolivian Constitution of 2009. Municipal Councils could no longer impeach mayors as they had done with so much gusto and frequency in Sacaba. She also stated that President Evo Morales had finally imposed his will as national leader of the MAS party, formally opposing the candidacy of municipal candidates who supported MAS on a national level but belonged to different political parties on the municipal level. These competing municipal parties often had the same platform as the MAS and opponents argued that they were simply vehicles for patronage jobs. About the recently re-elected mayor, Humberto Sánchez, Doña Leonora said “there was no other person to support,” because all of the other prominent MAS-allied politicians had signed on to other municipal parties. Of Mayor Humberto she said approvingly that he is a “simple person,” rather than a seeker or granter of patronage favors. And finally, she concluded, it was better to re-elect him in the hope that he would finish various infrastructure projects he had begun than elect a new mayor who would leave prior begun construction projects undone. The reason why a new mayor wouldn’t finish projects begun under a prior mayor was so obvious to her as to need no explanation: no mayor would want to share credit for a public works project with his or her rivals.

Importantly, Doña Leonora, strongly identified as the daughter of a provincial elite family, saw this transformation in the practice of politics and governance as beneficial even though her political faction was clearly marginalized under the current administration. As a former government employee under a prior mayor, she told me with just a hint of regret that she was no longer employed in City Hall nor did she have the ear of this new mayor. I attributed her marginalization to the Mayor’s attempt to support rural-born and rural-identified residents and to diminish the provincial elite’s control over municipal governance. Yet, rather than claiming that the mayor excluded her unfairly because of his desire to grant patronage jobs to other, unworthy, supporters as I had heard her complain under previous administrations, Doña Leonora approved of Mayor Humberto and had voted for him in his re-election.

Quinoa and Real Estate

Submerged in these local analyses of why the political dynamics in Sacaba have changed during the past five years are two significant local and national economic changes. On the local level, the real estate market for new housing has boomed in formerly agricultural areas surrounding the nearby city of Cochabamba. Skyrocketing prices for land on the outskirts of Sacaba town has served as a bonanza to the many Sacabans, including Doña Leonora, who have entered the business of buying and selling land parcels. This new stream of income may help explain why she was relatively sanguine about losing her municipal government position and her position of influence within the local political world. On a national level, Bolivia’s economy has benefited from the booming international market for quinoa. The quinoa boom has reportedly transformed many areas of highland Bolivia, as people who decades before had fled impoverished rural Bolivian localities for cities are now reportedly scrambling to move back to grow quinoa. The increase in disposable income among rural districts in Sacaba owing to quinoa production has surely contributed to their relative contentment. Don Armando, in addition to his chicken business, also grew quinoa on the side. When Don Armando said that “there’s money now in Bolivia!” surely the flow of cash from land and quinoa were important, in addition to the increased public funding from taxes on natural gas sales.


Mayor inaugurating the covered soccer court. Image by the author.

Yet it’s important to note that the framing of political conflicts through the idiom of patronage in local and national governments persists in Bolivia. News reports of these complaints echo the complaints of the past decade. In April 2015, for example, the mayor-elect of the city of Cochabamba denounced that the Cochabamba city council members allied with the MAS party of president Morales had increased the budget in secret to provide nearly 800 patronage jobs in the city’s Public Works department to young men who had supported the MAS mayoral candidate’s unsuccessful election campaign (Los Tiempos 2015). Also in April, a former MAS leader went public with the accusation that the local MAS party had offered him a patronage job in the administration if he would leave the opposition party he had joined (Los Tiempos 2015).

In my original article in PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, I had argued that, despite public denunciations of clientelism as outmoded and corrupt, many Bolivians in practice melded a diverse array of political norms and expectations of the state. As Aaron Ansell has recently argued in regard to Brazil (2104), it is neither practical nor just to ask people to live bound by a pure liberalism, free of patronage, in which personal relationships have no bearing on the distribution of resources. In practice, many people are unable to exercise the rights formally granted by the liberal state because the state doesn’t deliver access to jobs, healthcare, and education beyond the most privileged groups in society. It would seem that Don Armando’s analysis in Sacaba partially supports this claim. On the one hand, an element of his multi-pronged analysis was the morality-driven idea that the President’s literacy campaign had raised Sacabans’ consciousness, leading them away from patronage-seeking. Yet his more elaborated argument was that the increase in the municipal budget from taxes on natural gas exports was largely responsible for the decline of destructive patronage politics in Sacaba: more money to distribute meant less competition for funding.


Political activists in Choro, talking with the Mayor after he wrote the $100,000 check to purchase land for the new school. Image by the author.

One of the significant challenges of doing fieldwork in Bolivia stems from the difficulty in analyzing the “bottom line” of recent political changes, in the face of the enormous hopes and expectations following the election of President Evo Morales in 2005. The government’s much-vaunted “process of change” platform promises to carry out a wholesale purification of the polity away from patronage politics, transformation of one of the world’s weakest economies into an industrial powerhouse, and the guarantee of social and economic equality for all Bolivians. Many critics within and outside the country have noted the President’s marginalization of indigenous groups opposed to environmentally destructive highways and natural gas well construction (e.g., Bebbington and Bebbington 2010), while other critics decry the concentration of power within Morales’ MAS party in Congress and the Executive branch. On the other hand, many Bolivians like Don Armando and Doña Leonora highlight the benefits of a booming economy as well as laud redistributive policies in housing and infrastructure on the local and national level. When is a political change lasting and durable, and when is it evanescent and changeable? What has changed and what has stayed the same? I am, among many other Bolivians and outsiders, still seeking to address these critical questions.

Works Cited

Ansell, Aaron. 2014. Zero Hunger: Political Culture and Antipoverty Policy in Northeast Brazil. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Bebbington, Anthony, and Denise Humphreys Bebbington. 2010. “An Andean Avatar: Post-neoliberal and Neoliberal Strategies for Promoting Extractive Industries.” Working Paper, 117. Manchester, UK: Brooks World Poverty Institute.

Paredes Tamayo, Iván. 2015. Exmasistas dicen que les dan ‘pegas’ para volver: Condori denuncio que le oficialismo le ofrecio un cargo. En el MAS lo niegan. El Deber. April 2.

Soria, Violeta. 2015. Leyes: Conflicto fue por ‘pegas.’ Los Tiempos. April 11.

Miriam Shakow is an assistant professor of Anthropology and History at the College of New Jersey. Her research has focused the new middle classes in Bolivia and how issues of gender, class, and racial inequalities play out in everyday family life as well as community and regional politics.